AWWA president to Congress: Pollution reduction key to cyanotoxins prevention

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In testimony today before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, American Water Works Association President John Donahue stressed that the solution to keeping drinking water safe from cyanotoxins begins with reducing nutrient pollution.

The subcommittee hearing was in response to an event in August 2014, when the City of Toledo, Ohio, found the cyanotoxin microcystin in finished water and issued a “do not drink” advisory for more than 400,000 people. The contamination was the result of an algal bloom in Lake Erie.

“The fairest and best strategy for reducing the scope and severity of this problem in the future is bringing nonpoint sources of nutrient pollution under more effective management,” said Donahue, who is also CEO of North Park Public Water District in Machesney Park, Ill. “At present, though, these sources lie largely outside the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.”

Speaking on behalf of 50,000 water professionals represented by AWWA, Donahue pointed out that cyanotoxin contamination is always associated with excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in water. According the U.S. Geological Survey, nonpoint sources – predominantly runoff and air deposition – account for 90 percent of the nitrogen and 75 percent of the phosphorus in U.S. waterways.

Water treatment technology exists to allow drinking water utilities to remove toxins produced by algal blooms, Donahue said, but he also noted that the technology is very expensive to acquire and maintain. He highlighted work AWWA has undertaken to address the issue, including development of materials on protecting against algal blooms, training on protocols for responding to drinking water emergencies, and a creation of a soon-to-be-published cyanotoxins guide for utility managers.

However, he added that “utility managers can’t solve this problem on their own.We need federal help. Federal agencies, including EPA and USDA, should use existing authorities to give much higher priority to nutrient reduction projects that protect downstream drinking water supplies. For example, the Clean Water State Revolving Loan fund and Farm Bill conservation programs could be targeted and used more effectively to reduce nutrient pollution and protect drinking water sources.”

Other witnesses at the hearing were Peter Grevatt, director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water at EPA, and Craig Butler, director of Ohio EPA, and Lynn Thorp, national campaigns director for Clean Water Action.

Chaired by U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy resides under the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Established in 1881, the American Water Works Association is the largest nonprofit, scientific and educational association dedicated to managing and treating water, the world’s most important resource. With approximately 50,000 members, AWWA provides solutions to improve public health, protect the environment, strengthen the economy and enhance our quality of life.

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